MANATEE -- School board candidates Robert Moates and Dave "Watchdog" Miner squared off about teen issues Tuesday in a forum hosted by the Healthy Teens Coalition of Manatee County.
Coalition members represent about 50 county organizations, including social service agencies, community-based health providers and members of the school system.
"We just want to make sure kids aren't falling through the cracks," said Coalition secretary Lisa Ramirez. "There are a lot of good things in place for teens already. But there is always room for improvement."
On Tuesday, about 25 members showed up at the Synovus Bank conference room to hear the candidates, who are vying for the open District 2 seat in November, answer questions about access to extracurricular activities, teen pregnancy and how to support "high risk" students.
Miner said that the key to ensuring that kids have access to age-appropriate extracurricular activities is community involvement.
"The school board can't do it all by itself," Miner said. "We can collaborate with other organizations, organizations like yours."
Moates said he would work to get parents involved in these activities and look for opportunities for funding, perhaps by utilizing Title 1 funds.
"These programs need to be coupled with parent engagement," Moates said. "That's the secret."
Both parents advocated for introducing sex and health education at a younger age.
Miner said he is in favor of providing health education programs, as soon as fourth grade, with parents being able to "opt-out" if they didn't want their kids to participate.
Trained nurses could provide that health education if teachers were not able or comfortable, he said. And he would examine successful education models in other districts to see what could work in Manatee County.
"The best way is to find out what works in other places," Miner said.
Miner does not believe a school's role is to provide preventative health services for teens.
"I don't think our schools should get into the dispensary business of avoiding pregnancy," Miner said. "I think they should utilize counselors to suggest that parents and their children can go to the health department."
Moates said not enough focus is put on teaching teens the consequences of unplanned pregnancy, and though he'd love to say that sex education is a private issue that should be dealt with in the home, he supports a process that might bring parents into the schools and work with them to educate children on sex and health.
Ramirez said she appreciated Moates' commitment to engaging with parents. It's not always easy, she said, but too often the assumption is that parents, particularly of lower classes, don't want to be involved.
Debbie Subbiondo, a high school nurse, said she resonated with Miner's idea of health education that encompasses sexuality. Subbiondo said she feels a pull at her job. Talking about sex is still thought of as awkward, but so many teenagers don't understand how their bodies work. Sometimes, she said, parents don't either. But getting medically accurate information out there is crucial.
"I like the way Mr. Miner approached it as "health." Subbiondo said. "As soon as you say 'sex education,' people freeze up."
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.